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Pain at the Pump

Truckers adapt to spike in diesel prices that can mean paying more than $800 a stop
by: John Klicker, Jason Coleman and his partner Amy Dean talk about the escalating price of diesel fuel while taking a day off at the Travel Center of America truck stop in Troutdale on Tuesday morning.

For a long-haul trucker in a season of escalating diesel fuel prices, Jason Coleman is doing OK. As a driver for the CRST company, he doesn't have to shell out the $4 or so per gallon from his own jeans' pocket.

That doesn't mean he is unaffected by the spike in fuel prices. He and his partner, Amy Dean, just got word from the company not to purchase more than $800 of fuel in a 24-hour period. Drivers are also instructed to avoid buying fuel in certain eastern states such as Georgia, Ohio and West Virginia, where prices have climbed painfully close to $5 a gallon.

Other than the extra thought, effort and sometimes downtime the restrictions bring, Coleman considers himself lucky compared to some truckers.

'Every time I hear about prices going up I think of the owner-operators,' he said of independent drivers. 'My heart goes out to those guys. I couldn't do it.'

The Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based truckers discussed the price of diesel while eating breakfast at the Troutdale Travel Center of America off Interstate 84 on Tuesday, April 15. Coleman has seen diesel prices in recent weeks range from $3.97 to as much as $4.49. To keep within CRST's $800 per day mandate, he knows he'll have to go no lower than half capacity on his two 100-gallon tanks.

'You don't want to let it get to empty,' he said, adding that a recent half a tank near Mountain Home, Idaho, cost around $531. 'Man, she drank the gas this time.'

California-based trucker Dan Robinson chimed in from the next table. The Landstar Ranger contract driver pays for his own fuel. To save on costs, he's been slowing down to around 62 mph. Two years ago, fuel was 30 percent of his gross wages. These days it's closer to 50 percent.

'Fifty percent of what you make goes into the fuel tank,' he said ruefully.

On his way to a pick up at nurseries in the Eagle Creek area, Robinson said $4.20 a gallon in California is the most he remembers paying for the once-economical diesel fuel. Rather than blame oil companies or President Bush for the predicament, Robinson points his finger at Congress and what he sees as a narrow-minded view of where oil drilling can occur.

'A lot of guys are quick to blame the oil companies. But they're just trying to make a profit like anybody else,' he said. 'We're dependent on something we can only get from certain places in the world. Until we start drilling domestically, the prices are gonna be sky high.'

Nick Cerruti, a Troutdale-based owner-operator, estimates he's spending an additional $1,000-$1,200 a month - more than $5,000 total - than he did about a year ago. His chemical tanker routes are generally limited to Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

'I'm home every day,' he said. Still, 'it's hurt.'

The 20-year trucker tries not to dwell on the added expense. The fact that he was a company driver until a few years ago means he's not accustomed to tracking fuel prices too carefully.

'I never paid that close attention to it,' he said, adding he remembers $2.50 a gallon prices when he started his current lease arrangement. 'It's gone up and up and up since I started three years ago.'

Cerruti doesn't spend much time at truck stops these days, but says among truckers on CB radio the cost of fuel is a hot and heavy topic. Regardless, he's more or less resigned to what amounts to a pay cut because of fuel prices.

'When it's time to fuel, it's time to fuel,' he said. 'If you don't, you don't make any money. I'm still making some, just not as much.'